Innovating social policies

12.06.2014 Blog

On 19-20 May 2014, the European Commission’s DG Research and DG Employment organized a potentially ground-breaking conference on “social policy innovation”. A mixed audience of over 400 policy-makers, academics, and practitioners from public, private and civil sectors debated, demoed and exchanged experiences on this important topic. Social innovation was a major theme underpinning the realization that good policy-making and implementation needs both to work with social innovators at all levels, as well as draw on their practical insights.

The purpose of the conference was “to contribute to a new focus and better understanding among public authorities and stakeholders on how social policy innovation catalyses structural reforms based on a social investment perspective, as described in the Social Investment Package and the new programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI). By doing so, the Conference was designed to help Member States and other actors reach the targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy.” See more info here.

Amongst many relevant topics, the role of evidence-based research and knowledge-sharing for implementing innovative social policy reforms was considered by examining traditional as well as newer measurement tools and instruments. These included good practices, peer reviews and learning, dialogue, workshops and debate, as well as more rigorous and ‘scientific’ methods like randomised control trials (RCTs) and statistical matching. Existing European frameworks, like that deployed by the European Alliance of Families which focuses on the three main parameters of effectiveness, transferability and sustainability, were examined.

The present author also emphasized the importance of perspectives which seemed otherwise to be missing, such as the benefit of small scale experimentation which recognizes that failure is good as long as lessons are learnt and that this takes place small and early so as to minimize damage -- not big and late like the financial experiments of the last fifteen years. Killer issues like recognising that the context of policy is all important and that it’s the “mix that matters” must be addressed, although this is extremely difficult to put into practice. Here RCTs are often the best tool to take account of context by randomizing it, if it’s practical to deploy them and otherwise appropriate to do so. Randomisation can also be a good way to ensure that scare resources and efforts are not allocated politically or corruptly in situations where this might otherwise be a challenge.

Another often overlooked issue is the need for openness and transparency in all matters surrounding policy innovation and experimentation. At the very least transparency should be made the default position, unless very good reasons can be convincingly put forward as to why processes, information/data and decisions should be shielded from public scrutiny. Transparency has a number of high return benefits, including the innovation of better policies, for example through crowd-sourcing. This can, in turn, lead to greater awareness, buy-in and acceptance by those groups subject to the policy, and thereby also to greater policy sustainability and impact. However, the involvement of multiple actors in innovating and implementing policies – itself a big benefit in most cases – can lead to complexity and contribute to increasing dis-integration of public and social policies at a time when the opposite is needed. For example, when public services are channeled via, or outsourced to, many small and large providers, it can be difficult to know who is responsible when things go wrong. Further, where multinationals contribute to policy making and deployment but keep the details hidden because of so-called “commercial in confidence” clauses in their contracts with a public sector outsourcer, it can be impossible for other actors to assess costs, benefits and overall public value. Public policy innovation needs widespread involvement and scrutiny if it is to work well.

The lessons deriving from social innovation – its social need and impact focus and its concern for social processes and practices – makes it imperative that it contributes directly to the debate on social policy innovation, as well as to policy making and implementation. Social innovation will often be an essential part of both the process and outcome of social policy innovation.